I visited Poland shortly after turning 21. It was March 1990 and I was fortunate to be studying in England my junior year of college. After a rigorous semester of study I jumped at the chance to see Eastern Europe during my next semester break. The memories remain fresh sixteen years later. The tour group put Auschwitz and Birkenau on our itinerary.
For me Birkenau had the greater impact. It was usually hot as we walked the grounds. Days earlier when we first arrived in Poland it was bitter cold. There were crematoriums only partially destroyed by the Nazis in their attempt to conceal evidence prior to the war's conclusion. A lake where the ashes of cremated Jews was dumped remained.
I was the only Jew among our small group and sensed I was impacted differently than the others. Physically I was nauseous and struggled to walk. The others were horrified as decent human beings but it wasn’t quite the same for them – at least that’s how it seemed to me. I strolled by myself to an area overlooking a crematorium pit and reflected.
Among the people in our group was a kind-hearted graduate student from Cambodia and survivor of the Khmer Rhouge. He approached and stood next to me. We talked and I explained my family’s Polish history. A grandfather who escaped the Nazis and came to America at the age of 16 with his brothers while their parents remained behind. My great grandfather was especially heroic in helping Jewish children escape death in Poland before the Nazis finally caught up to him. Prior to Hitler he had been a prestigious judge but after September 1939 he was just another Jew marked for death.
Empathetically he observed, “For you this is personal.” We chatted and I learned about his personal history. He was a few years older than me and had a British accent. The Khmer Rhouge murdered his parents in the 1970s and he had no family in Cambodia. Surveying the scene and stillness of Birkenau he said “all genocide is personal to me.”
If I live to be 100 years old I will never forget those words and the conviction they were spoken with. Sadly I never got his name and upon returning to England I never saw him again. Yet those few minutes produced the most poignant conversation I ever had. All genocide is personal to me.
To our collective international shame the world does not take genocide personally. The conflict in Darfur is over three years old and the community of nations is disinterested, pre-occupied or incompetent. The previous three years illustrates humanity's callous ineptitude.
Early in 2003 a rebel group attacked government sites, saying the region was being neglected by Khartoum. These insurgents claimed their aggression was justified because the government oppressed black Africans in favor of Arabs. The region is arid and impoverished and people were competing for limited resources.
Darfur means land of the Fur and had previously experienced tension over land and grazing rights between the mostly nomadic Arabs, and farmers from the Fur, Massaleet and Zagawa communities. The two primary rebel groups are the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem). Recent peace talks were setback because of infighting in both groups.
The Sudanese government acknowledges mobilizing militias after rebel attacks but denies any relationship with the Janjaweed, accused of “cleansing” black Africans covering large tracts of territory.
Darfur refugees claim the Janjaweed attack villages on horses and camels, exterminating men, raping women and stealing anything they can. Many women report being abducted by the Janjaweed and held as sex slaves. Another vile atrocity are babies conceived from rape. Rape victims are typically told by perpetrators they want to make a "lighter baby."
Human rights groups, the American Congress and former Secretary of State Colin Powell all acknowledged that genocide was taking place. To its everlasting shame, the United Nations reported in February 2005 there was no intent to commit genocide. Just imagine an international body reporting in 1942 that Nazi Germany had no intent to commit genocide against the Jews of Europe.
Sudan's government denies any accountability for the Janjaweed and President Omar al-Bashir has called them "thieves and gangsters." International pressure and the threat of sanctions did finally compel the Sudanese government to promise disarming the Janjaweed. But they have not been disarmed.
Millions have fled the villages destroyed by the Janjaweed, towards camps near Darfur's main towns. There is not enough food, water or medicine to accommodate them.
International relief agencies have been heroic in Darfur but they are unable to penetrate vast areas because of the fighting. SLA leader Minni Minawi, signed a peace deal in May 2005. According to Amnesty International his fighters have abused people in areas opposed to the peace deal. A smaller SLA faction and JEM did not sign onto the agreement.
Approximately 7,000 African Union troops are deployed in Darfur with a limited mandate. There are too few soldiers to police the area and the operation can’t be funded much longer. And Sudan continues to resist western diplomatic pressure for the UN to take control of the peacekeeping mission. Recently the UN deliberated over a plan for17,000 troops and 3,000 UN policemen but there is deadlock and nothing has happened. And the killing continues.
What can we do? What can we do individually and as a country? The situation seems beyond hope and we’re besieged by so many other challenges domestically. We’re also governed by warmongers who prefer taking lives for oil instead of saving lives as members of the human race. Individually, few and this certainly includes myself, are willing to risk our lives. I can’t pretend I’m ready to join a relief agency and globe trot to Darfur.
But that rationalization is too convenient, too easy and too dismissive. Ultimately, our collective failure as human beings stems from not taking genocide personally as my companion from Cambodia told me sixteen years ago in Birkenau.
Every one of us can do something. For the netroots that means promoting awareness and raising money on behalf of organizations trying to save lives. Perhaps our promotion will also facilitate recruitment on behalf of organizations that are short staffed. Hopefully the netroots community can help pressure politicians into taking genocide personally as well.
I’ve been blogging since November ’05 and have no excuse for not writing sooner about genocide in Darfur. If all of us in the netroots community make it our business to periodically remind our readers about the crisis, promote agencies that need money or volunteers and encourage activism to influence politicians we can have an impact bigger than ourselves.
One organization is Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). MSF has over 162 international volunteers and 2,000 Sudanese staff saving lives in 24 locations in Darfur. In Chad, MSF assists refugees from Darfur in 11 locations with a total of 33 international staff. Click here to learn more about their work and make a donation.
Another heroic entity is SOS Children’s Villages. SOS currently operates two SOS Family Centers providing hundreds of severely affected children and single mothers with therapy and counseling, which is carried out by the organization's specialized staff. Click here to learn about their needs and make a contribution.
Bloggers can make a difference by ocasionally promoting just two different organizations that provide relief and save lives. Hence, can help save lives ourselves. If anyone wishes to promote other organizations and provide links where readers can make contributions please do so in your comments.
It’s time for all of us to take genocide personally.
ADDENDUM: Click here to review the growing number of comments in my cross posting at European Tribune. As always the ET community is thoughtful and provocative.